KELSO, Wash. — A yearly Christmas presentation that has drawn thousands to a church here won’t take place this winter because of apparent arson fires that destroyed the set of the outdoor walk-through show and many of its props.
Just after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29, a blaze was reported at structures on the property of Journey Seventh-day Adventist Church, 1185 West Side Hwy. in Kelso, that house the church’s Journey to Bethlehem program. There were also four small brush fires in nearby wooded areas. Firefighters fought the blazes for several hours, finishing about 5 a.m.
The structures were a total loss; damage was estimated at $80,000. The core section of the show’s Bethlehem village burned.
Cowlitz County fire officials noted that multiple fires had been ignited in previous weeks in the same area, so they believe they were intentionally set, although the main church building itself did not appear to have been targeted. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called out to investigate.
On the church’s Facebook page, Pastor Jim Wibberding announced that the church board has determined that the program, which last year drew more than 7,000 people over four consecutive evenings, will not be presented this December because of the damage.
“The cleanup, reconstruction, and purchasing needs are substantial. But the larger challenge is in re-making all of the specialized props that make the experience so immersive,” he wrote.
The church also stages a similar indoor program during the Easter season.
“Our church leaders, though processing deep emotions, are circumspect and optimistic about the opportunities before us,” Wibberding continued. “There is no question that we will continue to tell the Jesus story for and with our community. The question we are left to ponder is whether this is an opportunity to reshape that telling or reinvest in the same telling for several more years …. One thing is certain: The Journey Seventh-day Adventist Church will emerge from this tragedy with a fresh sense of mission and a dynamic, inspiring way to tell the Jesus story.”
For more information, go to www.journeyadventist.com